Norway’s Parliament opened on Friday after a week filled with political confrontations and noisy debate, not just in the USA. Polarization and a sharper tone have creeped into Norwegian politics as well, prompting the Parliament’s president to stress the need for samhold (solidarity and unity) as its members also head into an election year.
The Parliament’s highly traditional opening ceremony was itself, like everything else this year, affected by Corona restrictions and dramatically scaled down. With public gatherings limited to 200 people, there were no top state administrators present, no guests allowed to watch from the ornate Parliament’s gallery, and only two representatives each from the diplomatic and press corps.
There were fewer members of the government and MPs present as well and even the monarch was missing. King Harald V remains on sick leave until Monday, leaving his son, Crown Prince Haakon, to read the government’s speech from the throne for the first time. His mother Queen Sonja was on hand as usual, however, and neither she nor others had to stand for as long as normal, since all three ceremonial speeches were much shorter this year.
Both the address read aloud by the crown prince and the government’s own account of the state of the nation, read this year by Education Minister Guri Melby as the government’s youngest member, were heavily influenced by the Corona crisis and how the government hopes to emerge from it. They stressed the need for cooperation, job creation and inclusion as the country tackles relatively high unemployment rates and the loss of jobs that are unlikely to return. Even Crown Prince Haakon found himself having to remind everyone listening to keep washing their hands and respect social distancing, to a smattering of chuckles from the formally dressed assembly.
Parliament President Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen’s address at the end of the short opening ceremony drove home the point that the most important thing of all during the upcoming session is to maintain Norwegians’ culture of samhold (solidarity), not least in a crisis. She noted that the last session of Parliament “was the most unusual we have had in peacetime. Norwegian society, every one of us, local governments, state authorities, all of us, were put to the test.” It won’t be any easier, she warned, in the months ahead.
She was clearly glad that Norway’s leaders did come together when Prime Minister Erna Solberg felt compelled to all but shut down the country on March 12. The general public cooperated.
“Confidence in us was strengthened by what I believe we showed when uncertainty was highest last spring,” Trøen said. “At the core of our political culture is samhold. Not samhold that wipes out disagreements, but samhold that makes it possible to find common solutions when that’s demanded.” The crisis, she noted, “demanded hard work. We worked quickly and handled many important issues in a short period of time.”
Trøen appealed for that to continue into the next session. She seemed heartened by surveys that have shown a high degree of public confidence in both the Parliament and the government, “but we neither want, need nor deserve blind confidence, and fortunately we won’t get it. Public confidence in what we do depends on our ability to listen to advice and take criticism under consideration. We must manage to have the difficult discussions needed to find the best solutions.”
After a week when a much-anticipated debate between the two US presidential candidates descended into a highly undignified shouting match that prevented meaningful discussion of issues, Trøen appealed for mutual respect among Norwegian politicians and, not least “honour.”
“There is no reason to meet difficult times with hard words,” Trøen said. “Let us continue to do our work with honour.”
With that, and the singing of just one verse of Norway’s national anthem, the opening of Norway 165th Parliament ended, exactly a half-hour after it began. Political debate begins on Monday.